New diamond museum Diva sparkles in Antwerp


Antwerp's newest museum recently opened to the public – the long-awaited Diva diamond museum, which brings together various collections

A diva is forever

A new diva has arrived in Antwerp, laden with diamonds and other sparkling accoutrements befitting her status.

The lady in question is actually a new museum called Diva – not an acronym, but a sobriquet meant to evoke the glitter and glamour of its collection. Diva Antwerp Home of Diamonds (its full name) fuses the collections of Antwerp’s former Diamond Museum, which closed in 2012, and the Silver Museum at Sterckshof Castle in Deurne, which closed in 2014.

The “diva” is also the fictional hostess (pictured) whose well-appointed home is evoked within the museum’s walls. Her equally fictional butler narrates the audio guide, inviting visitors into his mistress’s world of luxury and guiding them through the exhibits.

The butler – called Jerome Legrand – is the creation of celebrated Flemish writer and stage director Frank Van Laeke, who also voices the character. In addition, Van Laeke was asked to write short audio plays, blending fact with fiction, about several items in the collection.

Welcome to the Wunderkammer

The idea was to bring the objects to life and engage the visitor’s imagination. “We wanted to have a context, an atmosphere, that really stimulates people to enjoy the objects,” explains museum director Jeroen Martens.

A visit starts in the diva’s Wunderkammer, modelled after the collector’s cabinets that were popular among wealthy aristocrats in centuries past. Many of the museum’s most beautiful and unique objects are displayed here. The audio guide, in addition to providing some historical context, delivers fictional vignettes narrated by people who could have owned or used the items.

The next room is the Atelier, with interactive displays that delve into the history and craft of diamond cutting on the one hand, and of silver- and goldsmithing on the other. The third room tells the story of Antwerp’s diamond trade through biographies of historical figures from six different periods in the city’s history. Touchscreens ringing a large illuminated globe (pictured below) explain diamond mining practices around the world.

We don’t have the biggest diamonds or the best-known jewellery in the world, but I think we have one of the most interesting stories to tell

- Diva director Jerome Legrand

The Dining Room focuses on the social lives of Antwerp’s elite and features displays of exquisite silver table settings and serving pieces. The Vault, which really does resemble a bank vault, offers visitors the chance to test their knowledge about diamonds and to learn about forgeries and other crimes.

Finally, the last room is the diva’s Boudoir, furnished to resemble an Art Deco dressing room, where the museum’s most sparkling and spectacular jewellery can be seen. A popular feature is a touch screen that lets people take a quiz to reveal their inner diva and then post a bejewelled selfie on social media.

The museum’s emphasis on atmosphere and storytelling sets it apart from most other diamond museums. “Of course we don’t have the biggest diamonds in the world, and we don’t have the most well-known jewellery in the world – you have to go to the Tower of London for that,” says Martens, “but I think we have one of the most interesting stories to tell.”

Rooted in history

That story is rooted in Antwerp’s history as a leading centre of luxury goods and craftsmanship in the 16th and 17th centuries. And although Antwerp is currently the leading centre for international trade in uncut diamonds, its current role in the luxury goods market is less prominent.

Diva showcases the craftsmanship available in Antwerp today, through a well-curated gift shop selling handmade jewellery and local products, and via an in-house diamond concession. Fine jeweller Silvius Druon operates a suitably elegant showroom on the first floor, where tour groups will soon have the option of booking shopping sessions with a private concierge.

The audio guide is currently available in English, Dutch and French, with plans to add German and Chinese soon. Other languages, including Spanish and Russian, will eventually follow.

The museum has a prime location next to the Grote Markt, in buildings that used to house the Ethnographic and Folklore Museums (now part of the MAS museum). Behind the traditional brick façade facing Suikerrui, the interior has been thoroughly renovated and updated. In addition to the museum galleries, there is space for private events and workshops.

A memorable experience

The first series of summer workshops in silversmithing for both novices and experienced artisans begins in July. These workshops, which are open to the public, will be led by Anja Baelus, who teaches jewellery design, goldsmithing and silversmithing at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

The museum’s partners, which include the city’s tourist office and the diamond industry, are hoping that Diva will add lustre to Antwerp’s image and the local economy. However, director Martens insists that the museum’s main objective is to give the visitor a memorable experience.

“In the end, we want people to be convinced of the craftsmanship, of the creativity and of the beautiful things you can find here.”

Photos: Louise Mertens (top), DIVA-Carla Janssen Hofelt (above)